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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 276

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (13:05): I rise, once again, to speak on the Turnbull government's disastrous Centrelink automated debt recovery system. I have had many people contact my office with their experiences of the impact of this system. Their experiences demonstrate the distress and confusion that this system is causing in the community. I would like to share some of those stories today. I might add that these are just three of the many examples that we have received. I am not going to identify anybody in these contributions.

I am a 35-year-old woman with chronic physical and mental illness. I am only able to work 15 hours a week, so I am dependent on my Newstart payments to survive. After paying rent, I have $30 a day to live on in Sydney. I try to do the right thing, and when I am working I make sure I report any income I earn to Centrelink. But now I have received a debt of $2,000 plus that I don't even owe, plus a recovery fee, all because I worked for a few months in 2010 before going on Newstart in 2011 after I left a job. I did not declare my income from the job because it ended a month before I went onto Centrelink. But the Centrelink computer system seems to think that they have overpaid me, despite a letter from my former employer and bank statements proving I'm correct. Nobody at Centrelink has been able to fix this mistake. I'd like to tell you what my last three days have been like, and then you can decide if the system is working well.

Day three of Centrelink nightmare. A dozen phones calls; at least an hour on hold each time. Websites that don't work; documents that won't upload despite trying multiple times; income reassessments that are repeatedly rejected because the documents won't upload; following detailed directions from staff that lead to nothing, and they can't tell me why; calling employers from seven years ago for payslips that no longer exist; being told I have no record of any debt; being told that I owe $2,000-plus because the computer system can't comprehend people only working for part of the year and averages out their income, so it looks like they've been overpaid when they haven't; being told my debt was waived yesterday; being told I still have a $2,000-plus debt, plus a 10 per cent recovery fee, and if I don't start paying it by 9 February it will be handed on to debt collectors; one screaming nervous breakdown; several hours of feeling suicidal, and three calls to Lifeline.

I am now too ill to work, and have been given a doctor's certificate for two weeks off. What did I do to deserve this? Does this sound like a system that's working well?

The second example:

First letter that came out was asking for tax returns from 2009/2010 and 2010/2011. This was asked from me two years ago, so I didn't get why it was asking again. Went to local office to ask why on earth it was asking for them once more, and on my records there was no note of it being asked. So was told not to worry about it; if they wanted it they'd ask again.

On the 1st December I received a notice of debt of approximately $5,300 with a due date of 28 days to be paid from tax years 2009/2010, 2010/2011, 2011/2012, and a recovery fee of approximately $480. Also, on the 1st December I received a letter that stated that I earned too much money as of July 2011 and Centrelink had stopped my payments and owed me $50.80. Are you as confused as I am? But wait, there's more. Pretty much I have evidence to prove this is a farce. I have to write up a notebook of why it's wrong. In the meantime, I have to pay back a non-existing debt until I take this to the highest I can go to get this system recognised as the way wrong and as not working. By the time I do that, others who have paid without questioning might see what's happening and ask for a review of their supposed debts.

And to add to all this, I'm on Centrelink as of only November 2016. Three weeks later I receive this debt. I am having to deal with it while having had spinal surgery on the 5 January 2017 and going through recovery. So that's why I'm on sickness benefits at present.

I have another example:

I am a student who has been receiving youth allowance then Austudy for the past three years during my undergrad. Received a letter asking to confirm my employment income at the beginning of December. The system didn't give me an opportunity to confirm my fortnightly income, so it averaged out my annual income when I went from full-time, earning a higher amount before study, down to part time when studying, earning a lower amount. It then spat out a debt of $3,178.

I then spoke to someone at Centrelink and they helped me add in my fortnightly income amounts for that financial year. They said it would take two weeks for a decision to be made. A week later, on 21 December, they sent me a new letter saying 'The previously calculated amount has been changed. The new amount is $14,733. This replaces the previous notice.' No reason, no explanation, just: here's a new bill for $14k. I'll hopefully get some kind of response when I call them today.

Those are three examples of people affected by this.

I have also had people who work within the system contact me. This is an example—I will not get through all of it but I will give you the bones of what they say as much as I can. This person who works within the system says:

I actually work in the local DHS service centre. I see the effects of this horrendous data-matching tool on a daily basis and I would be more than happy to have a conversation about it. However, the main reason for this contact is my view that Centrelink is at the verge of quite a spectacular implosion. The main cause of this is the complete lack of staffing, but even more so the tools that we have to use. Not only are we mandated to move to an operating system named Customer First, which has been very cumbersome and time consuming to operate and encounters major system issues almost on a daily basis; this, however, is nearly insignificant to our latest tool called Workload Manager, WLM.

Most of our work comes in electronically in the form of online claims or scanned images and forms. These all go into a virtual bucket which is then allocated by the WLM to the virtual teams. The trouble is nobody knows who does what, and there is no ownership of the work and nothing appears to be getting done. KPIs are completely out of the window. People wait six months for the aged pension carer payment. Youth allowance claims for customers that have just completed year 12—so that we cut their parents' FTB—will take several months. The amount of questions re the progress of their claims and network and rework is phenomenal. We can't tell them anything. We can't give them any indication of where their claim is being done or when it will be done. There is nobody to contact. We can mark their claim as urgent when the customer is in financial hardship, but this appears to have no effect.

Paperwork that customers have lodged electronically months ago to update their records simply do not appear to get done. Medicare is getting much the same way. Delays in progress are literally getting longer by the day to the extent that things are completely out of control. Meanwhile, staff are severely overworked and, as a thank you, we haven't had a collective agreement or pay rise for three years as the government keeps stalling negotiations with unreasonable offers to take a lot of our working conditions and safeguards away in return for a below-inflation pay rise. In the meantime, the government has legislated that pay rises can't be retrospective, so there is no incentive to finalise the agreement. Every day they can stretch it out is saving them money. Anyway, the debt tool is atrocious and is inherently flawed, in particular where customers have not worked a full year. Even for staff it is a hard tool to negotiate, and puts customers at a very unfair disadvantage. However, the debacle is, I feel, only the tip of a bigger iceberg. Anyway, I have ranted enough and I am probably jeopardising my job even writing this.

That is from the people who are handling the system. The way Australians are being treated is disgraceful. It is also disgraceful that the people working in Centrelink are being put in this position. I know that they are copping a lot from these people, who are so distressed, and that the stress is affecting their mental health. I urge the Prime Minister to listen to the people who are affected by this disastrous debacle and I urge my colleagues in this parliament, across the board, to listen to the Australians who are telling you how bad this system is. I think this system needs to be scrapped.